CHRIS KELLY: Down The Rabbit Hole
Today we take a weedwacker to a political Easter egg hunt.
At their Feb. 4 meeting, Lackawanna County commissioners unanimously approved a $25,000 small-business loan tucked in the tall grass of the monthly bills. It appeared on the ledger as a line item payable to Gino Majewski and Lori Pilosi. No description of the transaction was included.
A month earlier, Majewski was the lone bidder to operate a new Charl-Mont restaurant in the renovated county building. He signed a three-year lease to rent the space for $1,500 a month. Pilosi is Majewski’s aunt. She co-signed the loan to help her nephew get started in the restaurant business, a family tradition.
It’s a good story, one that illustrates the reason the county loan program exists — to attract and nurture new business.
Local family invests in the community.
Community invests in local family.
Everyone has a hoagie and goes home happy.
You might think the administration would want every taxpayer to hear that story — especially in an election year. Somehow, it never came up during a Tuesday “walk-through” of Majewski’s plans for the space.
Commissioners Patrick O’Malley and Laureen Cummings preened for the cameras and gushed about Majewski and his project. They talked about vision. They talked about history. They talked about grit, guts and good government.
They talked about everything but the loan. On Thursday morning, I found the line item and started asking why the loan was buried in the bills. Commissioner Jerry Notarianni called me back. O’Malley and Cummings did not. Notarianni said that aside from his vote to pay the county’s monthly expenses, he had nothing to do with the loan. This jives with a 243-word statement the administration spent most of a business day cobbling together.
Generally, loans are approved by the county Department of Economic Development and an “independent committee comprised of community, business and banking professionals,” according to the statement. By the time a loan reaches the commissioners, it’s a done deal.
“With the exception of authorizing the current payables at a bi-monthly Board of Commissioners meeting, the Commissioners are not involved in the loan review or approval process. ... The County does not comment on individual loan applications.”
Administration officials may choose to keep quiet, but the law speaks loud and clear.
“If a public entity provides a loan, that’s clearly public information,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. Working here, I reach out to Melissa more often than I call my Mom.
“It should also be approved at a public meeting, which it sounds like it was, although maybe not in the most transparent way,” she said. “If it’s for a good cause, it sounds like something they would want to trumpet — ‘Hey, here’s some new business coming to the county.’
“Why they wouldn’t do that is beyond me, but any records of the loan are clearly public. The documents will speak for themselves.”
On Thursday, I filed a Right to Know Law request for all records related to the loan. I followed up Friday with a request for a list of members of the independent committee that evaluates loan applications. The RTK requests I filed for the cost of renovations to the Charl-Mont space and the Lackawanna County Government Center at the Globe are due responses from the county early this week.
While we wait for the administration to embrace the concept of transparency, I wish Gino Majewski success in his new business. The public scrutiny that comes with public money has not been kind. Majewski has made mistakes, some that resulted in serious legal charges. Judicial records show he’s paid for them. He doesn’t owe the court of public opinion anything.
Gino and his aunt applied for a loan in good faith and got caught up in a political Easter egg hunt. I spoke with both on Thursday. Neither liked the attention, but they didn’t run and hide like the grit, guts and good government crowd hunkered down on the sixth floor. I respect that.
In spite of the negative attention they didn’t bargain for, Gino and his family remain excited for the opportunity ahead. I’m rooting for him to make the most of it, just like any investor should.
CHRIS KELLY, the Times-Tribune columnist, would be nowhere without many second chances. firstname.lastname@example.org, @cjkink on Twitter. Read his award-winning blog at timestribuneblogs.com/kelly.